Two necessary conditions for students to improve the quality of their writing are explicit instruction in writing techniques and sustained writing practice. Explicit instruction is a systemic approach to teaching that includes a set of proven design and delivery procedures or interventions derived from research. Throughout this guide, you will find descriptions of many such writing interventions.
This section addresses the importance of increasing the amount of writing that students do. Increased writing activity is not an instructional intervention that addresses specific academic difficulties, but research does show that sustained writing practice:
- Improves writing.
- Improves reading.
- Makes students more fluent in the writing process.
- Makes writers more comfortable with writing.
- Promotes transfer between contexts.
- Deepens thinking about content and helps students construct new knowledge.
Surveys and research have shown how little time American secondary and postsecondary students are expected to devote to writing and how little they actually produce (Applebee & Langer, 2011; Kellogg & Whiteford, 2009). In fact, frequent composing helps students become better communicators, and increasing the amount of time that students spend writing is an important factor in improving writing quality and fluency.
How Are We Doing in Adult Education?
How much time are TEAL adult education instructors currently spending on writing in their classrooms? Figures 1a and 1b show responses to polls taken in the spring of 2011 in the online course titled Effective Lesson Planning. Set your goal to increase the amount of time your learners write and the amount of writing they do. It will serve them well!
Struggling writers gradually develop into better writers when they are prompted to write daily and when they receive immediate and specific feedback about that writing. Short daily writing tasks help build learners’ writing fluency and boost their confidence in expressing themselves in writing. You can incorporate a variety of activities into your teaching to increase the amount of writing your students do—and not all of it has to be corrected! Get learners writing every class period.
You can help build your learners’ writing fluency by giving them frequent, short writing assignments, asking them to journal about their learning activities, suggesting that they correspond daily with a buddy student via e-mail, and so on. Consider the following strategies, and find ideas of how to manage the workload of feedback in the Provide Constructive Feedback section. Consider the many ways learners can write, and provide options for them to show what they know by applying the principles of UDL.
- Quick Writes
- Writing-to-Learn Prompts
- Sentence Combining
- Writing Summaries
- Writing With Frames
Quick Writes, otherwise known as “free writes,” are:
- Opportunities for reflection and elaboration
Applying Quick Writes to Instruction
When to use them
- Warm-up activities to start class
- After a reading assignment, to reinforce comprehension
- Before a class discussion, to focus ideas
- Before a writing assignment, to brainstorm and elicit ideas
Why use them
Provide opportunities for readers to strengthen their comprehension
- Deepen writers’ thinking about a topic as a writing-to-learn activity.
- Support progress toward one or more specific writing goals (i.e., longer compositions, more details, or more complex sentences).
- Desensitize students to the fear of a blank page.
- Enforce the rules: No talking and everyone writes—including the instructor!
- Keep writing time to five minutes or less.
- Try to stay on topic, but it’s more important to keep writing.
- Debrief afterwards—ask for ideas or words that were generated.
What adult education instructors say about Quick Writes
“In my opinion, the Quick Writes approach is particularly successful for engaging nonwriters or those for whom asking for a certain amount of words is a daunting challenge. If you can get students to feel successful with writing quick-fire paragraphs, it can then be a goal to work on through sentence expansion to begin reaching towards a more formal essay assignment.”
–Jonathan Moore, Mississippi TEAL Team
“I have found that using Quick Writes in the classroom is a simple, effective strategy to help students get their thoughts on paper. Devoting only a few minutes towards the writing activity is nonthreatening to students. They have begun to welcome the assignment rather than dreading the writing process. As an instructor, I like this activity because it gives me the opportunity to work alongside my students. I become a writer with them. ... I am very pleased to be able to use Quick Writes in my classroom.”
–Lynne Ralston, Florida TEAL
Writing to learn is different from writing to communicate. Writing-to-learn activities are writing tasks that help students learn subject matter by thinking through key concepts or ideas presented and then writing about them. In essence, the primary function of writing to learn is to order and represent the content of the learning experience to one’s own understanding. Table 2 includes examples of writing-to-learn activities and practical applications for instruction.
Writing-to-Learn Activities and Applications
- Entry Slips: Use before a lesson; check for prior knowledge or assumptions.
- Crystal Ball: Check for assumptions by asking, “What might happen next?”
- Found Poems: Get the gist. Have students rearrange something they’ve read or written without adding new words.
- Awards: Check for understanding. Nominate the most helpful, most important, most influential element of a content lesson.
- Yesterday’s News: Check recall by asking, “What was the headline from last class?”
- Take a Stand: Get opinions out and discussed.
- Letters: Ask imaginary or real others for an explanation of their work, stance, or action.
- Exit Slips: Get closure with a summary or short list of what students learned.
Adapted from Improving Adolescent Literacy: Strategies at Work by D. Fisher and N. Frey, pp. 142–143. Copyright © 2004 Pearson Education.
You most likely are aware that getting adult learners ready to write is a complex task. Setting the stage for writing instruction with adults involves an understanding of how adults learn differently from children and what that means to your teaching style, classroom management, and planned instructional experiences. Each learner regardless of age is unique and has varied interests, skills, desires, and challenges. No one curriculum plan or intervention idea will meet the needs of all learners. The skillful teacher is confident that every student can improve and, therefore, prepares for flexible instructional environments to capitalize on strengths and support varied challenges of learners. (For additional information, see the TEAL Center Fact Sheets on Adult Learning Theories and Student-Centered Learning at the end of this section.)
Teachers are most successful in reaching struggling writers when their instruction emphasizes the full writing process—planning, writing the first draft, and revising—and makes those stages clear and explicit. It is critical that teachers guide students and provide support in the planning and prewriting stage so that they have a map or outline of important points laid out for them to follow in writing their first draft. Teachers also need to offer numerous models of good writing that students can review when completing writing assignments. Finally, effective teachers provide specific, timely, and supportive feedback to students about their writing. Writing research suggests that, especially for struggling writers, planning and prewriting development, authentic inquiry activities, and collaboration with peers improve writing instruction and the quality of students’ written products. All three of these activities are good fits for adult education.
“The teaching of writing is highly dependent on ... provocative prewriting activities that spur discussion, debate, and thought. … Generating for the students a purpose for writing assignments is one of the most successful practices a teacher can implement in the writing class.”
(Thomas, 2000, p. 43)
Prewriting is exploring, planning, and organizing ideas. It is a necessary step that precedes writing the first draft of an essay and then revising the draft to produce the final piece of writing. Activities in the classroom, such as debating a controversial topic or brainstorming ideas and vocabulary before beginning to draft a composition, have a positive impact on the final written product. The process of dialogue about the topic, the audience, the assignment, and so on, deepens learners’ connection of oral to written language and the ability to articulate their thoughts. Be sure to emphasize to students that the more time they put into prewriting and the more thorough the prewriting activity, the more polished their essays will be. Consider asking the reluctant or challenged writer to try writing in the digital environment.
"Last year, I taught a 12-week session on writing in which students composed 12 essays. The first 6 essays were done with a group brainstorm and a webbed graphic organizer (slightly modified). The last 6 were done independently. Students drew the graphic organizer from memory, and filled it out to give them a starting point for their essays. One of the chief concerns my students voice each year is that they don’t know where to start when confronted with an essay prompt. I always tell them to take 5–10 minutes to plan their essays using this graphic organizer. It works!"
Judy Hoye, Virginia TEAL Team
This planning work can be helpful for introducing vocabulary relevant to the topic. However, keep in mind that intensive vocabulary instruction also will be needed, particularly for low-achieving writers (Graham & Perin, 2007a) and adult literacy learners (Greenberg, Ehri, & Perin, 1997). Techniques for teaching vocabulary include creating vocabulary lists, word walls, word webs, and personal glossaries to help learners gain new vocabulary to express themselves on the topic—and then leaving these visible in the room! Too often, such lists get erased or thrown out even though they could remain helpful through the entire writing process.
Engage learners through multisensory and multicultural experiences to spark their imagination and reach their interests. Encourage a variety of approaches to brainstorming, planning, and idea gathering. Brainstorming is not the only way to help students begin planning what they will write. You can ask students to discuss the topic long before they begin to write; ask them to list pros and cons of a proposed action or idea; require that they keep writer’s journals; strengthen your use of graphic organizers; and model your own prewriting strategies.
Consider allowing learners to complete this phase in any medium, using drawing, oral recordings, or graphic organizers to help get their ideas down, and then translate or transfer them to text after the ideas are formed. For ideas on creating options for learners at all stages of the writing process, see the Apply Universal Design for Learning section.
Inquiry learning is a form of active learning in which students engage in a focused investigation on a topic of interest. Honing inquiry skills by gathering and analyzing “concrete and immediate data” and engaging in activities such as comparing and contrasting or evaluating evidence collected (Graham & Perin, 2007b, p. 19) results in improved writing quality. This approach relies on rich prewriting dialogue to bring issues and prior knowledge to the surface as well as to deepen vocabulary and critical thinking on the issues. One example of use of inquiry learning is asking students to interview one or more key informant(s) about an issue before taking a position and writing about the issue.
“Our TEAL project has been [focused] a lot on the learning process. I feel students (especially adults) can learn from one another. Maybe they feel more comfortable or maybe other students can speak the same “language” as another student… I feel the cooperative learning groups can be a very efficient and effective part of the learning process.”
Mary Ellen Davis, Oklahoma TEAL Team
There is a long history and a strong tradition of this sort of problem-posing approach and authentic writing activity in adult basic skills pedagogy (Freire, 1970, 1994; Horton & Freire, 1990). Adults are strongly motivated to address issues of immediate concern in their lives and communities. Discussions and authentic learning experiences that allow their voices to be heard on the issues are empowering and energizing. The discussions should feed into the planning and prewriting process. In particular, inquiry learning can involve preparation for persuasive and informational writing and also can be connected to reading comprehension instruction.
Discussions can engage students to do the following:
- Learn new vocabulary.
- Deepen their understanding of the issue.
- Develop an awareness of different points of view.
- Articulate their thinking.
- Write for an authentic audience.
Writing instruction must acknowledge the importance of this cognitive development for adults who have not previously had outlets for expressing their opinions and thoughts. Spending prewriting time with inquiry, dialogue, vocabulary, and background knowledge development on authentic activities is documented as a necessary step for adult learners (Purcell-Gates, 1995; Purcell-Gates, Degener, Jacobson, & Soler, 2002; Purcell-Gates & Waterman, 2000; Silver-Pacuilla, 2004, 2006).
Learners working together through the entire process of writing—planning, drafting, revising, and editing—results in higher quality products. Sharing drafts is easier when writers use technology, but there is much in the early phases of drafting that does not require technology, such as dialogue, notes, organizers, and outlines.
Teach and model your expectations for group and partner interactions so that feedback is constructive and partners learn from each other. Use peers as pairs, triads, and small groups in every aspect of writing instruction to carry out the following:
- Plan and discuss topics and arguments.
- Generate vocabulary lists, word webs, and glossaries.
- Draft outlines.
- Suggest sentences to combine or revise.
- Be authentic readers and provide genuine feedback.
Make time for learners to discuss, plan, inquire, and collaborate on all stages of writing activities. You will see the benefits in more thoughtful and coherent writing products.
Applebee, A., & Langer, J. (2011). The National Study of Writing Instruction: Methods and procedures. Albany, NY: Center on English Learning & Achievement. Retrieved December 27, 2011, from http://www.albany.edu/cela/reports/NSWI_2011_ methods_procedures.pdf
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2004). Improving adolescent literacy: Strategies at work. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1968)
Freire, P. (1994). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed (R. R. Barr, Trans.). New York: Continuum. (Original work published 1993)
Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007a). What we know and what we still need to know: Teaching adolescents to write. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11(4), 313–335.
Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007b). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools—A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Greenberg, D., Ehri, L., & Perin, D. (1997). Are word-reading processes the same or different in adult literacy students and third–fifth graders matched for reading level? Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 262–275.
Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Kellogg, R. T., & Whiteford, A. P. (2009). Training advanced writing skills: The case for deliberate practice. Educational Psychologies, 44(4), 250–266.
Purcell-Gates, V. (1995). Other people’s words: The cycle of low literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Purcell-Gates, V., Degener, S., Jacobson, E., & Soler, M. (2002). Impact of authentic adult literacy instruction on adult literacy practices. Reading Research Quarterly, 37, 70–92.
Purcell-Gates, V., & Waterman, R. A. (2000). Now we read, we see, we speak: Portrait of literacy development in an adult Freirian-based class. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Silver-Pacuilla, H. (2004). The meanings of literacy: A PAR project involving women with disabilities. Women Studies Quarterly, 32(1/2, Special Issue on Women and Literacy), 43–58.
Silver-Pacuilla, H. (2006). Access and benefits: Assistive technology in adult literacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 50(2), 114–125.
Thomas, P. L. (2000). The struggle itself: Teaching writing as we know we should. The English Journal, 90, 39–45.